Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians VI: Saints among us

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:1-7
Matthew 23:29-39

“Sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.”  St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis’ observation was – and is – simple.  We cannot demand or require from others what we are unwilling to demand or require of ourselves.  Today perhaps more than ever, our society needs solid examples and role models of faith and service to others.  When they do not have that, they can only do so much with what little they have.  

United Methodist elder JD Walt put it this way, When we lose sight of the grand vision, we tend to succumb to the closest thing we can see.  Remember when the freed Hebrew slaves wanted to go back to Egypt?  They had lost sight of the vision.  There’s a verse in Proverbs that says something like, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’.” (

So we have visionaries throughout the ages - United Methodists believe in saints, but not in the same manner as the Catholic Church.

We recognize and celebrate All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and "all the saints who from their labors rest."  All Saints' Day is a time to remember Christians of every time and place, honoring those who lived faithfully and shared their faith with us. 

However, [the United Methodist Church] does not have any system whereby people are elected to sainthood.  We do not pray to saints, nor do we believe they serve as mediators to God.  United Methodists believe "... there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6a). 

United Methodists call people "saints" because they exemplified the Christian life.  In this sense, every Christian can be considered a saint (that is, those who actually exemplified the Christian life; a significant caveat).

John Wesley believed we have much to learn from the saints, but he did not encourage anyone to worship them.  He expressed concern about the Church of England's focus on saints' days and said that "most of the holy days were at present answering no valuable end" ( 

There are misconceptions about the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine regarding sainthood, not least of which is that recognized saints, including The Blessed Mother, are not in any way “worshiped” (nor is the pope, for that matter).  These faithful are honored and remembered for “taking the road less traveled”, often at great personal risk, but they are not worshiped.  Do not believe otherwise.

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Churches mark “feast days” devoted to many of the saints, but the purpose is to remember these saints and honor the work they are remembered for.  They are not honored for merely being Christians.  Those deemed to be “saints” have some significant event in their lives determined to be “miraculous”.  The earliest saints had died martyrs.

I am not going to try and explain the idea of praying to saints for intercession because, frankly, I don’t understand it myself.  Besides, examining the doctrines of the United Methodist Church require that we focus on what we do believe and how useful our beliefs are to the witness of the Church.  It is not our task to try and find fault with what we do not understand.

It is written in the Letter to the Hebrews that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1), but the author was referring to biblical heroes and the patriarchs of Israel who preceded such “doctors” of the Church as St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi.  These men, and many others (including women), are largely responsible for the development and refinement of the doctrines and practices of the Church in general, including many Protestant doctrines.  These saints, just like you and I, had their own struggles as exemplified by St. Augustine who is quoted as once having said, “O Lord, help me to be pure … but not just yet.”

St. Augustine struggled often with the internal war you and I face on an almost daily basis, but his plea for purity came before he finally surrendered fully to The Lord and devoted himself to matters of faith, making sense of doctrine, and service to the Church.  He wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.  He desired holiness, but he also desired the sensual pleasures and comforts of his own world.  The real struggle came, however, as he began to realize the Holy Scripture is not a “general reference” to be used only as needed.  St. Augustine also discovered that there are no loopholes!  There are no escape clauses, and there are no short-cuts to sanctification.

The power of the Holy Spirit became inescapable for these men and women we honor to this day.  And we do not remember them just because some pope declared them “saints”.  They are all very real and significant parts of the history and witness of the Church through the ages.  We remember and honor them for the same reason the author of the Letter to the Hebrews lifts up the patriarchs and others who persevered in the Holy Path when it would have been much easier – and safer - to just join the crowd, be “popular”, and declare their own holiness or salvation without actually living it.

Jesus admonished the Pharisees and the scribes because they were not being realistic in their observations and remembrances of the past.  Even we today cannot imagine having been eye witnesses to the Mighty Signs and Wonders The Lord performed in Egypt, and then being anything less than faithful to The Lord.  Yet as we should learn from the wilderness journey, it only takes a generation or two, however, to forget.  It takes no effort to make these heroes of the faith to be nothing more than fond memories in a book. 

That is, we may remember the names and we may even remember the period in which they lived.  We are not likely, however, to take serious note of the obstacles they confronted and the real dangers they faced … even from those who considered themselves as faithful as they felt they needed to be – on their own terms!  These were dangerous people then – and are no less dangerous now.  So being chastised by someone – anyone – especially an “outsider” did not sit well then – and does not sit well now.

Even today we do not take seriously what the prophets endured in confronting the people of The Lord and calling them to repentance before it was too late.  Prophets of all stripes do this very thing even today, coming from unlikely sources and even from our Sunday pulpits, and we do not take them seriously enough to hear the Word and then “go and do likewise”.  If we do not like what we hear, we either reject it outright OR we simply stop coming to listen.  And if we think Jesus is not referring to us in this admonition of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, we are not looking closely enough at our own lives or the lives of those around us.

I send (not ‘sent’) you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify (if only their spirit in your slander), and some you will flog in your synagogues (read ‘churches’) and pursue from town to town …” (Mt 23:34).  Unless, of course, that ‘prophet’ is Joel Osteen or some other celebrity ‘pop culture’ preacher who “misleads My people” [says The Lord] by preaching “peace when there is no peace” or by trying to “whitewash a wall” that will soon fall (Ezekiel 13:10).  We will follow them to the ends of the earth – as long as they tell us what we wish to hear, as long as they satisfy our “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) but refuse to call us to sanctification.

Sometimes the prophets and saints of the past are difficult to read and appreciate because we cannot place ourselves in a culture which no longer exists.  We are certain, as the scribes and Pharisees were in Jesus’ day, that we would not “kill” a prophet or participate in the “mob” desecration of the human soul, but the truth is we do exactly that when we fail to stand up for what is truly righteous. 

More than bringing a curse upon ourselves, however, is the reality that The Lord chastises only those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).  When we refuse to hear – and then actively respond – to a “hard word”, we decline a genuine blessing being offered to help put us back on the Righteous and Holy Path. 

We’re still on a Journey – and will be until the Final Trumpet sounds – so we must not allow ourselves to fall for the “snake oil” that poses as salve for the soul.  We can easily see our world “going to hell in a hand basket”, yet we often reject the Holy Word that is calling us apart from that destructive path to perdition. 

The Hard Word is not always pleasant to the senses, but it is always edifying and sanctifying to the immortal soul. We celebrate and honor the saints who stood firm in The Eternal Word and, like Jesus Himself, “gave us an example, that we should do the same” (John 13:15).  And let us always remember that these saints were not known or referred to among their peers as “good ol’ boys” or “fine Christian women”.

So let us resolve that we will no longer go about our “business as usual”.  The Ministry of all Christians requires that we take more seriously the “cloud of witnesses” and the mission to which we are called as baptized Christians so we may become, for generations to follow, that same “cloud of witnesses” who persevered in righteousness and faith – not popularity.  There are “Saints among us” today.  Let us be counted in their company.

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